ADVENTURE Of A LIFETIME
GO BEHIND THE SCENES OF BALI’S MOST SUCCESSFUL ADVENTURE-BASED COMPANY, AS CO-CREATORS AND TOUR DE FORCE, YANIE & NIGEL MASON, TALK TO ASIA DREAMS ABOUT WORKING HARD, TAKING RISKS, AND BELIEVING IN GOOD KARMA.
ASIA DREAMS: You were born in England, spent part of your childhood in Egypt and ventured to Australia at age 15 with the Big Brother Boys Movement. Please tell us about that.
Nigel: The Big Brothers Boys Movement was mostly invented for orphans after the war as many kids were without families, so the program invited kids from Europe to live in Australia. As a teenager in the 1950s in London, let’s just say I got into a fair bit of trouble. I knew there was no future for me there, so I talked my mum into letting me go to Australia. The experience wasn’t what was promised, nor was it what I expected. We didn’t end up working on a farm learning valuable skills, instead it was slave labour, so I escaped and travelled the country on my own, nearly getting caught by the organisation a few times. After two years, I was free and settled in Melbourne.
ASIA DREAMS: Please tell us about your days in the music industry, rubbing shoulders in the 1960s with The Beatles and Rolling Stones?
Nigel: A friend of mine worked at EMI music recording company. I bumped into him one day and he told me about a possible job opportunity. I waited for him to get back to me, but he never did. So, out of sheer bravado, I walked into their main office during a weekly meeting and said that I was there to apply for the job I heard about. The manager said applications were closed and I replied: well, that’s not a very smart thing to do; you haven’t interviewed the best guy yet! He must have liked that because I got the interview and that night I received a call to start work on Monday. I scored a huge record album collection from that position and a friend just told me that one of my Bob Dylan albums is worth US $37,000 today.
ASIA DREAMS: You first ventured to Bali in 1980 to take a break from the rat race. What was Bali like back then?
Nigel: Very different. Very relaxed. Very unspoilt. There were hardly any motorbikes, no cars, the odd truck; it was easy. I had lots of time on the beach, stayed in a losmen called Kortis for 1,500-rupiahs per night – including breakfast! Yanie’s cousin ran the losmen and we eventually met three years after I arrived. We opened Yanie’s restaurant in Legian and made great food. It grew into a very popular pub with people lined up to get into the place, many of our customers today at Bali Adventure Tours remember us from those days. We closed Yanie’s to focus on developing a new adventure-based concept on the land we had purchased along the Ayung River in 1989. Tourists were floating down on inner tubes back then and we were inspired to start a professional rafting company.
ASIA DREAMS: Bali Adventure Tours is one of Bali’s most successful businesses today. What did the early days look like?
Nigel: After we bought our land, we began searching the river for another spot where we could actually get guests down to the water. Eventually we did and we put in several hundred steps, making it very safe and only buying the best quality equipment. We did quite a bit of promotion overseas and before we knew it, we were guiding 300 – 400 guests every day. Our only competitor back then became quite jealous of our success. One day they took the then governor rafting and convinced him to make the statement: “one river one rafting company”. They closed us down and we lost everything, we had to let over 200 employees go. That governor ended up going to jail and after 2 ½ years, we managed to get back on our feet. I’m a great believer in karma and if you do the right thing the right thing will happen to you. Our professional reputation is that of being incorruptible and we have raised our boys with that mind-set.
ASIA DREAMS: Your work with elephants is internationally recognised and was even admired by the late Steve Irwin. What sparked your family’s love of elephants?
Nigel: As fate would have it, I was just sitting in my office one day and my secretary told me that a guy was downstairs waiting to see me. He had nine elephants in Bali and wanted to set up a trekking operation but had no capital. So he came to me and asked me to buy them and I offered to take a look. We drove to Taro, where the Elephant Safari Park & Lodge is today, and we travelled down an atrocious road that led to a dried out rice paddy.
Yanie and I talked about adding the elephant concept to our adventure tours, to help us diversify, and somehow the bank reluctantly decided to lend us the money to do it. The elephants were going to die without our help, and after saving the lot we started to rescue more. A film called Operation Jumbo has been distributed worldwide about our rescue efforts. We turned that barren landscape where the elephants barely existed into the lush nature park it is today. I’ve always had a green thumb, so it was really a natural fit for me.
ASIA DREAMS: You don’t seem content resting on your laurels. What is happening with Bali Adventure Tours today and what is your vision for the future?
Nigel: We just opened a multi-million dollar adventure centre in Kedewatan, Ubud near the Kupu Kupu Barong hotel where our rafting headquarters is located. It’s truly a world-class destination for families, residents and visitors alike. We have re-opened Yanie’s restaurant – a much bigger, five-star version with a sushi bar and stunning canopy rooftop area for relaxing and enjoying the view. We have a beautiful Japanese spa, a bakery, delicatessen, and a large retail shop, House of Yanie, which was also very successful back in the day.
The rafting operation is hands down the best in Bali; very streamlined, electronic bracelets for locker access, imported rafts specially ordered from New Zealand, life jackets that fit two-year-olds on up to the largest men, an evacuation heli-pad on the roof and an emergency sick bay staffed by a professional nurse. We always strive to be the best, not the second best. We set high standards for the industry as a whole and our efforts were nationally recognised recently with a Cipta Award, given to us for our commitment to operate as sustainably as possible. Elephant Safari Park & Lodge has received the ‘Certificate of Excellence’ award for the last four years from TripAdvisor and that’s recognition we could never buy.